< Part 5
All year long, cultofwhatever is taking a look back at Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a TV series that best exemplifies what it means to be a “cult” favorite. It was never a monster ratings-grabber, it barely attracted new fans during its initial run on television, and the network that aired it frequently teased pulling the plug and ending it. What it had going for it, on the inside, was a staff of top-notch writers, led by Joss Whedon at the prime of his life, as well as a huge cast of stars and semi-regulars who never failed to rise to the occasion whenever the spotlight shined their way. What it had going for it, on the outside, was a diehard following of fans who, while small compared to those of other TV shows, sung its praises and extolled its greatness during and long after its time on TV was done.
Already we have broken down the show’s first five seasons. Click HERE for a link to the previous articles.
Buffy is dead. Buffy was dead.
Buffy died. Let’s start there.
It’s pretty ballsy to end a season with your main character leaping to her death as a heroic sacrifice to save the world. It’s less ballsy when you’re ending an entire series that way but even then it’s a pretty bold move for a showrunner to make. In the former case, you’re basically telling the audience “don’t worry, this will all work itself out somehow,” which runs the risk of rendering the emotional impact of the sacrifice completely neutered. In the latter case, you’re basically telling the audience “this is it; the show is done and there is nothing more to say on the subject.”
Star Trek DS9 ended with Ben Sisko’s heroic sacrifice, but even that—the ballsiest and boldest of all the Trek shows—was done only half-heartedly, with the wink-and-nod assurance that he was still alive, in a sense, and could always come back someday. Breaking Bad managed to pull it off with the death of Walter White, but that example only proves the point: Fans to this day continue to speculate and wonder if he’s really dead, if the wound that finally put him down was fatal, etc. Nevermind the fact that Walter White was hardly a hero in the conventional sense. Basically, unless there’s a burial and a shot of a body in the casket (or at the very least a shot of a gravestone) as the screen fades to black, fans will always wonder and hope. The number of TV shows that ended with the absolute, definitive death of the main character is tremendously small.
As far as the WB was concerned, Buffy Summers died in the final episode of the fifth season. And, as far as the WB was concerned, the final episode of the fifth season was the final episode of the TV series entitled “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” In the days leading up to the episode, “The Gift,” commercials on the network and ads in the TV Guide billed it as “The WB Series Finale.” It was an odd phrasing; nothing else was ever written in such a way. When Cheers ended, it wasn’t called “the NBC Series Finale.” When M*A*S*H ended it wasn’t promoted as “the CBS Series Finale.” So what gives?
Buffy was dead, but her show wasn’t.
Already the deal was in place for UPN to continue the series, with a two-season contract that promised Joss Whedon something he had never been given before with the WB: Job Security. Finally, after season finale after season finale of having to write the year’s final episode as a possible “final-final” episode, now he had the freedom to tell a longer story, spread out over two years. This deal was not fully solidified when “The Gift” was written, however, which meant if the show was never picked up, season five’s final episode would have to be its last. This was an all-or-nothing finale; either Buffy would end for good or it would continue for a guaranteed two more seasons.
Instead of hedging his bets, Joss and co. ended year five in the most “final” way possible: Buffy dies, her friends mourn, the hero is buried, and her gravestone is the last thing we see as the screen fades to black. That was it. It was over. Buffy died.
Until, later that summer, ads started popping up and billboards started appearing, all bearing the same two words…
So begins year six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a season that has divided the fanbase more than any other. To put it simply, this is a messy year, filled with writing that is occasionally as weak as anything we’ve seen since season one, as well some decisions for the characters that, frankly, continue to anger fans to this day. And yet, despite its messiness, there is a beauty to this year, one which might not have been apparent in the original week-to-week episodic release, but which is made much more obvious when binge-watched years later.
In terms of ranking, while I will provide a full episode-by-episode “worst to best” analysis later, it’s worth mentioning here that season six has only a single episode ranked in the top-eleven, tied with season one for the fewest. On the other hand, that single episode is (spoiler) the single greatest episode in the show’s entire run. It also has the single worst episode in the entire “worst to best” ranking, with a disastrous hour that beats out even the loathsome “Beer Bad.” Again, it’s a messy season, full of extremes, but when viewed as a whole it has a lot to admire.
Perhaps the biggest criticism against the year is that it is the most brooding, dour, even occasionally “depressing” season of the series. On that point, I agree entirely. What I don’t agree with, however, is the idea that it being depressing is a criticism. On the contrary, the season is about depression. That is the theme being explored. Remember…
Every Buffy season explores a key aspect of life and maturity befitting the title character’s age and development. In season one, Buffy tackles her calling. In season two, it’s her first love. In season three, it’s the end of childhood. In season four, it’s the awkward transition between being immature and mature. In season five, it’s the grim realities of adulthood. In season six, it’s depression and finding a reason to live.
The internal struggle this year, about dealing with depression and finding a reason to
keep on living live again, is tackled, outwardly, through the challenges posed by the season’s big bad. And who is this big bad? At first, you might think it’s these goobers…
But while “the trio” do play Buffy’s foil for most of the year, they are not the Big Bad of the season. You might think the real villain of the year is Willow, who goes dark for the final few episodes and tries to do the “big bad” thing that Buffy Big Bads seemingly try to do every season: destroy the world. But again, that’s not it. Well, technically that’s almost it, but not quite. No, the real Big Bad of season six are these people…
Well, okay, to be fair, Tara and Dawn are completely innocent. The rest of them, though, in particular the core threesome of Scoobies that have been together from the beginning—Buffy, Willow, and Xander—are the real villains of the year.